The ramen boom continues in the Pacific Northwest, with tonkotsu the prevailing fan favorite. While I hold out hope that someone will open a restaurant locally that specializes in a more “sappari” shoyu ramen, I remain engaged in the pork broth craze. Following my recent trip to Fukuoka, Japan’s home of tonkotsu ramen, I was especially interested in trying three brand new places in Seattle (well, Tukwila), Richmond (BC), and Vancouver (BC) with Japanese chefs who are putting out their versions of porky noodle soup.
Yah Yah Ya Ramen brings Yokohama-style iekei ramen to Richmond. “Iekei” means house-style, though there’s a play on words of sorts with the kanji of “ie” also being “ya”—which also means house (used in a different manner). The repeated sound of “ya” in the restaurant name, with the shortened version at the end, adds a sense of excitement of playfulness.
Unfortunately, my excitement about Yah Yah Ya’s ramen abated quickly upon receiving the bowl. The chashu pork, while generous in portion, was pale gray in color, and lacked flavor. It was also too lean, even though we ordered the pork with fat, as compared to the “without fat” option. You can also customize your noodles to be soft, normal, or hard. I had no qualms about either the normal texture of my noodles, or the firmer texture of the noodles in the miso ramen I also sampled. (All bowls come with half of a flavored egg. In the miso ramen, wakame replaces the nori that’s found in the shoyu bowl, with bean sprouts added and spinach removed.) Other ordering options involve oil level (less oil, normal, or oily) and taste (light, normal, or thick).
As flat as the chashu flavor was, the broth was even blander—perhaps the blandest bowl of ramen I’ve had in some time. The broth is said to be made with both pork and chicken bones, along with konbu and vegetables, and cooked for at least 12 hours—then flavored with soy sauce, green onions, garlic, and chicken oil. But it simply lacked complexity and depth. For $9.50 per bowl, this was a disappointing experience.
Next up was Taishoken Ramen in Vancouver. Taishoken is a legendary ramen restaurant in Japan, and as I’ve yet to have opportunity to try it there, I was thrilled to learn of its arrival in Vancouver. The restaurant has photos of the original location in Tokyo, and the chef apparently worked hard to replicate flavors and presentation in Vancouver. But, the tonkotsu ramen ($9.75) was slightly disappointing. I liked the choice of lean or fatty pork, but those choices proved to be extreme in both directions, with the shoulder too dry and the belly far too fatty. The added egg was cooked longer than I prefer (no runny yolk), and the broth (made with pork and chicken bones) was a little too light. The option of a stronger broth helped to some degree, but a little more pork flavor and salt might have helped.
Better for two dollars more was the tsukemen, as the broth was more concentrated and therefore richer in flavor. The noodles, boiled and then rinsed, are thicker and have a firmer texture that makes for a more enjoyable meal. (There’s also a tomato ramen available, which I had little desire to try.)
Given its proximity to Southcenter, I was skeptical about quality at Arashi Ramen. Whereas Santouka screams Japanese, I got a Chinese feeling from Arashi—partly because my Chinese-speaking server was confused when I asked questions about ramen options, and partly because Arashi overcompensates by touting its masterchef as the Japanese “Daisuke Ueda.” There’s a prominent chalkboard boasting that the broth simmers for over 16 hours, reminiscent of Santouka’s claim.
Taking me by surprise, the kitchen delivered with a milky, porky broth that was quite good. It could stand to be a bit more meaty and perhaps even more oily, but the flavor was pleasingly creamy and still porky. My tonkotsu shio bowl came with traditional thin noodles that were a little soft (I believe this is the local trend in catering to Chinese and even Western preference), but those in the know can now request firm (katamen) or extra firm (barikata)—and maybe even get thicker, wavy noodles.
At $8.95, the bowl was relatively inexpensive albeit simple, with half an egg (nicely runny), green onions, bean sprouts (which I personally would omit next time, as I find them distracting and ultimately diluting, due to water content), and red pickled ginger. As with the other places, you can add toppings at extra cost. Note that all of Arashi’s ramen is tonkotsu-based, even if bowls like black garlic don’t specify. For the driving distance, I’d still go to Santouka, but Arashi is a good choice if you’re south of Seattle—and is hopefully a sign of raising the bar for ramen around here.
ADDENDUM: Shortly after publication of this article, I had a chance to try the tonkotsu at Boxer Ramen in Portland. This was a mixed bag. The noodles were well-cooked, but the broth was a bit thin for my taste, and the egg was undercooked, melting away in the bowl. Most disconcerting: the cubes of applewood-smoked bacon, reminiscent of the ham cubes found in salad bars. Nice flavor, but not the right match for tonkotsu ramen. Strangely enough, one of the cooks proudly told me that this is how the pork is traditionally served in tonkotsu ramen in Japan. Having returned from the home of tonkotsu (Fukuoka) just a few months prior, I can report that I never saw such preparation there. Still, some good flavors, and always nice to see new ramen options.